Ever since it was first released almost a decade ago, Google’s Chrome browser has been the most consistent piece of technology in my life. I’ve gone through a legion of phones, laptops, and headphones, I’ve jumped around between Android, iOS, Windows Phone, macOS, and Windows, but I’ve rarely had reason to doubt my browser choice. Things have changed in recent times, however, and those changes have been sufficient to make me reconsider. After so many years away, I’m returning to Firefox, in equal measure pushed by Chrome’s downsides as I am pulled by Firefox’s latest upgrades.
If a friend were to ask me what the best web browser is, I’d answer “Chrome” in a heartbeat, so don’t mistake this as a screed against Google’s browser. I still see it as the most fully-featured and trouble-free option for exploring the web. It’s just that sometimes there are reasons to not use the absolute best option available. Here are mine.
The thing that woke me up to my over-reliance on Chrome was when Google implemented an ad blocker directly into the browser. I’d usually be delighted to have ad blocking automated away, but the surrounding conversation about Google — an ad company — having sway over which ads are and are not acceptable to present to users convinced me there was a problem. According to NetMarketShare, Chrome is now used by 60 percent of web users, both on mobile and desktop devices, and Firefox looks respectable with 12 percent of desktops, but is almost a rounding error with only 0.6 percent of mobile devices. Apple’s Safari and Microsoft’s Edge don’t look much better, even though they’re the default option on their respective OS platforms.
Chrome has outgrown its competition in a way that’s unhealthy. My colleague Tom Warren already detailed the deleterious effects of Chrome’s outsize influence, with web developers optimizing and coding specifically for Chrome (and Google encouraging the practice), with unhappy connotations of the crummy old days when Internet Explorer was the dominant browser for the web. Chrome came to liberate us from the shackles of IE, but like many revolutionary leaders, too many years in power have corrupted Chrome’s original mission.
Before I settled on Firefox as my Escape from Chrometown alternative, I gave Safari a solid couple of months as my primary browser. If I were committed to using only iPhones, iPads, and Macs for the rest of my tech life, I might still be on Safari. Its performance is great on both iOS and macOS — though I’d be lying to you if I were to say I could tell a difference in speed between any of the modern browsers — and it offers a choice of ad blockers among a reasonable selection of browser extensions. The options are nowhere near as varied as Chrome’s extension library, but that’s a non-issue for me since I’ve never been dependent on extensions in the first place.
But I’m writing this in Firefox today for a very simple reason: cross-platform compatibility. I recently set up a new Windows laptop, and having to deal with a browser that doesn’t know me or my preferences was just an exercise in frustration. Safari’s nice, and I’m certain it’s good enough to supplant Chrome for Apple device users, but for me it’s a non-starter. I need a browser that knows me as well on a Huawei smartphone or Lenovo ThinkPad as it understands me an on iPhone X.
Like Chrome and Safari, Firefox has a built-in password manager that saves my logins and passwords as I browse, which I can then protect with a master password. One password, I can remember. Dozens of weird alphanumerical concoctions? That’s where I need the browser to step in and help, and Firefox has been great in that respect. With Safari, I had a couple of occasions where the browser would either forget a password or get confused about where to save it when, for example, I’m logging into more than one Google account. Firefox keeps all this stuff straight and, so far as I can tell, secure. (Security pros will tell you that a dedicated password manager is best, of course.)
In pondering my browser switch, I did the obvious thing and looked at benchmark comparisons among the most popular browsers, while also reading up on real-world experience with regard to battery life and other less obvious impacts. That piqued my interest in Opera, which has a built-in VPN and, like Firefox, plenty of privacy protection and anti-tracking options. I like the philosophy embodied by Opera, but I don’t like that the Android versions of its browsers serve ads on my lock screen.
After spending some quality time comparing the actual experience of using Chrome, Safari, and Firefox across a variety of websites, I’m confident in saying browser benchmarks are profoundly uninformative. The truth is that performance differences are not substantial enough to be noticed. If anything, you’re most likely to clash with “only works in Chrome” incompatibilities, but that’s kind of the whole reason for me to avoid Chrome: someone has to keep using the alternatives so as to give them a reason to exist.
But I’m no martyr sacrificing himself for the common good here. Firefox is a legitimate, high-quality replacement for Chrome. Ever since its Quantum engine overhaul, Firefox has been garnering plenty of praise from satisfied users, and though I’m only just starting to get into using it full-time as my main browser, everything I’ve seen has been encouraging. Firefox has certainly grown far beyond slow memory hog that I remember from a few years ago.
The main thing I’ve learned from migrating between a few browsers over the past couple of months has been that the design and performance differences between them are smaller than ever before. If you’re like me and want to strip your browser down to a bare address bar and a couple of arrows, you can do that as easily with Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari, or any of the other alternatives like Edge and Vivaldi. Your bookmarks can travel with you across operating systems and devices with most browsers. Keyboard shortcuts like Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + T to revive the last-closed browser window are approaching universality. Chrome and Firefox both have a “close tabs to the right [of this one]” option. You can mute individual tabs in both browsers.
Eventually, I may find myself forced to return to Chrome, perhaps by some clever ecosystem integration Google adds or the latest lovely Chromebook (I really think Chromebooks are underrated as basic getting-stuff-done computers). But until that time comes, I’m happy to support Firefox in its efforts to provide a genuine and viable alternative to the browser juggernaut.